Music Interviews
4:48 pm
Mon November 26, 2012

Meshell Ndegeocello Honors Nina Simone's 'Sovereign Soul'

Originally published on Tue November 27, 2012 11:28 am

On her latest album, Pour Une Âme Souveraine, singer and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello performs the songs of Nina Simone. The French title is a nod to the fact that Simone spent the later years of her life in France, but it's also Ndegeocello's way of honoring her idol.

"It means 'for a sovereign soul,' " Ndegeocello tells NPR's Melissa Block. "She was one of the people, but I felt she was like royalty."

In Ndegeocello's eyes, Simone is more than just a great artist — she's a fascinating historical character whose personal struggles deeply informed her music.

"She had a complicated life full of pain and disappointment," Ndegeocello says. "If you read her book, it's just sadness after sadness after sadness, disappointment after disappointment, and expectations that could not be fulfilled in her lifetime in terms of civil rights. She found out music was a dirty business. A lot of her disenchantment was from bad record deals, and it seems like Nina Simone just questioned why the world was the way it was."

The album opens with "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," a song Simone recorded in 1964. While Simone's original performance has a sense of urgency, Ndegeocello sounds more relaxed, almost nonchalant. It shows that, while she may revere Simone deeply, the two differ greatly in personality.

"Yeah, I guess I'm less apologetic, and hers seems more of a pleading to be understood," she says. "I think secretly I've realized after my time on the planet that I have no control over what people feel about me or need from me, so I just have a more laid-back approach in my apologies."

Later on the album, Ndegeocello offers her take on "Four Women." It tells the story of four black women who, although they come from different backgrounds, share a common history of pain and hardship.

"There's no hierarchy in suffering," Ndegeocello says. "I think songs that are transcendent are the ones where everyone can feel something from it, you know?"

Each song interpreted on Pour Une Âme Souveraine seems to have been chosen to convey a different message. But the album as a whole, Ndegeocello says, has a focused purpose: reminding the world how important Nina Simone was as an artist, and as a human.

"It was important to pick songs that she had written," she says, "because the hope for me is to get more people interested in her, check out her catalog and sort of revive it, and also use her story and learn from her story."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Singer Meshell Ndegeocello says when she first heard a Nina Simone recording and the deep, rich tones of her voice, it was transcendent. Now, she's released her own album of songs that Nina Simone either wrote or interpreted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUZANNE")

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Suzanne takes you down by the river. You can hear the boats go by. You can spend the night forever beside her. And you know that she's half crazy.

BLOCK: Nina Simone grew up poor in North Carolina, a prodigy on piano, classically trained. As a singer, she blended jazz, folk, blues, gospel, and she was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. Meshell Ndegeocello has titled her tribute album in the language of the country where Nina Simone lived at the end of her life: France. It's called "Pour Une Ame Souveraine."

NDEGEOCELLO: It means for a sovereign soul because she was one of the people, but I felt she was like royalty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUZANNE")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) You want to travel with her. You want to travel blind. And you know that she will trust you for you've touched her perfect body with your mind.

She had a complicated life, full of pain and disappointment. If you read her book, it's just sadness after sadness after sadness, disappointment after disappointment, and expectations that could not be fulfilled in her lifetime in terms of civil rights. She found out that music was a dirty business. A lot of her disenchantment was for bad record deals, and it seems like Nina Simone just questioned why the world was the way it was, you know, just - I think it was hard to deal with that at that time as a black woman in society, you know, with great gifts.

BLOCK: The song that starts your CD is a song that was written for Nina Simone. She recorded it in 1964. Let's take a listen to Nina Simone's version first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.

BLOCK: And, Meshell, here's yours.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Sometimes all I know is worry. You're bound to see my other side because I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.

BLOCK: It's interesting because Nina Simone has such an urgency, right, when she's saying that line. She's like...

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...demanding, pleading, please don't let me be misunderstood.

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

BLOCK: And yours is kind of - it's a murmur. It's so delicate.

(LAUGHTER)

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah. I guess I'm less apologetic. I'm like I make mistakes, sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Aha.

(LAUGHTER)

NDEGEOCELLO: And hers is - it seems more like a pleading to be understood, and I think secretly like I've realized after my time on the planet that I have no control over what people feel about me or need from me, so I just have a more laid-back approach in my apologies, you know?

BLOCK: One of the songs that Nina Simone wrote that's on your CD is "Four Women," which came out in 1966.

NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah. Yeah.

BLOCK: What's the song about?

NDEGEOCELLO: It's about four black women and the differences. They come from different backgrounds, and I think it's one of the most amazing songs and just tells the story of so many people. Everyone can put themselves in one of these characters, I think.

BLOCK: Let's listen to part of the last verse from Nina Simone's version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUR WOMEN")

SIMONE: (Singing) My skin is brown. My manner is tough. I'll kill the first mother I see. My life has been rough.

BLOCK: In Nina Simone's version at the very end, the last line is what do they call me, and she shouts Peaches.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUR WOMEN")

SIMONE: (Singing) My name is Peaches.

BLOCK: And in your version...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUR WOMEN")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) I'm awfully bitter these days. To my sadness, I'm enslaved. What do they call me?

It's silence. You know, so it could be anybody, and it could be just whatever your inner voice needs to hear, you know? We play this at the show and a set, and we didn't say it, and this woman just stood up and she said I am Peaches. And she wasn't black or white or any, you know, it's for anybody.

BLOCK: What was your reaction when she stood up and did that?

NDEGEOCELLO: Oh, I was like that's it exactly. You get, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

NDEGEOCELLO: It - everyone, there's no hierarchy in suffering, and I think songs that are transcendent are the ones where everyone can feel something from it, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAL REAL")

BLOCK: Another one of the songs that Nina Simone wrote herself is "Real Real."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAL REAL")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) I say real real. Our love is real to me. It gives me perfect liberty when you tell me that you love me and when you hold me...

The song is so beautiful, and the words are so, well, I guess that's what it all took me and that - the beauty of love, I guess, that's what it brought out in me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAL REAL")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) I say real real. Our love is real to me. Please thrill me with your kisses sweet. When you tell me that you love me and when you hold me and you kiss me, I know our love is real. It's so real to me.

It was important to pick songs that she had written because the hope for me is to get more people interested in her, to check out her catalog and sort of revive it and also use her story and learn from her story.

BLOCK: Well, Meshell Ndegeocello, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

NDEGEOCELLO: Oh, it's been great to talk to you too. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAL REAL")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) When you hold me and you kiss me, I know our love is real. It's so real to me. Real real, our love is real to me.

BLOCK: Meshell Ndegeocello, her album is titled "Pour Une Ame Souveraine - A Dedication to Nina Simone." You can hear more from the album at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAL REAL")

NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) One day soon we're going to have a great wedding day. It's so real, so real, so real. It's so real, so real, so real.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.